Amid a hefty battle with management that involved getting her work phone confiscated, Arizona Republic reporter Rebekah Sanders is confident the newsroom will win its unionization effort with “strong support” when they vote October 10.
Sanders, who has been a visible and vocal member of the newspaper staff’s effort to organize, has worked at The Republic for 12 years now and has seen a lot of devastating cuts take place, and very few – if any – raises for staff.
“I don’t think there’s been any across-the-newsroom cost-of-living raise since I’ve been there,” she said. “Some veteran reporters took huge cuts during the recession and then have not had any raise since then, which is like a pay cut every year with the cost of living rising.”
When The Republic newsroom attempted to unionize in the 1970s, the paper’s owner, the Pulliam family, gave most of the staff raises, which ended the effort. This time will be different, Sanders said, though some reporters have received raises already.
She said the newsroom will happily accept raises because everybody deserves it.
“But promises aren’t as secure as a contract,” Sanders said.
She and an estimated 70 union members are ready to win the election.
What do you think is the best case scenario for the effort?
I think best case, if you’re telling me to imagine, is we get to Election Day [on October 10], we get 100 percent support. We get into contract bargaining. We work together really hard to bargain effectively and get a contract that protects everything we have now and adds more so journalists at The Arizona Republic know that they can either build a long career here if they are a young reporter or continue to work until they want to stop if they are a veteran reporter. And I honestly don’t think that’s as much of a best-case scenario, I think it’s completely possible. In fact, I think it’s probable that we are going to win with strong support and secure a strong contract that protects local journalism.
And worst case scenario?
I’m not thinking about it. We’re staying focused on the goal and we’ve been winning every single time we encounter a challenge and we’re gonna’ win big on Election Day.
What kind of blowback have you seen since announcing? Have your sources treated you any differently?
Every person I talk to when I run into them, every source that’s reached out to me, and others are supportive across the political spectrum. I’ve covered politics for many years so I know a lot of people who are consultants, or political reporters, and Republicans and Democrats say to us “The Arizona Republic is vital to this community” and the only way to stop or lessen the cuts that threaten to destroy it is with a strong union. Even the people who are not union supporters, generally … it’s surprising. It really has blown me away. But on the other hand, it’s not surprising because people who care about Arizona and Phoenix know that a local newspaper is so important to keeping politicians accountable or telling you about a high school sports game, celebrating the beauty of Arizona, investigating fraud. I personally have saved readers more than $200,000 this year through my job and helped to save a life. So if my job goes away, that’s a real impact for people across this community.
It’s got to feel good that during a time when so many people distrust the media that there are still several who see the value.
We have really wonderful, loyal readers and subscribers who look forward to learning about what’s going on around them every morning and it does a disservice to them the more we cut our newsroom and fail to keep veteran reporters on staff and fail to reward reporters for good work.
How did your unionization effort begin?
There’s been a wave of organizing campaigns in newsrooms across the country the past few years, as journalists have decided to put their foot down and take matters into their own hands, push back against corporate greed. And what’s different about movements now versus 1970s is there’s social media. We are all far more connected than we used to me. Particularly the LA Times’ successful campaign was an inspiration for a lot of people given the track record of that paper’s owners being very anti-union for years. So I think it just is kind of in the ether and it’s exploding around the country. There are so many newsrooms that are in process at various stages and we’re going to help every single one of them because we are stronger together and we’re learning from each other. … a lot of people were just thinking the same thing for a while and it just took a spark like the really shocking layoff of Steve Benson and the really terrifying takeover bid by Digital First, which now has morphed into this very uncertain merger with Gatehouse, for people to say I’ve kept my head down for so long and I won’t anymore and I’m going to try my best to make this newsroom a better place.
What’s something you haven’t been able to do since the unionization effort began that you have missed?
There’s so many people that have been putting blood, sweat, and tears into this effort. It is so incredible to see people sacrifice their Saturday morning, their weeknights, staying up until the wee hours to finish a flier or the video, the social media plan — it’s incredible to watch. I think we are probably missing out on sleep or family time or time to relax on weekends. But people are motivated to do it because they want to make things better for everyone. Personally, my husband would like me to put my phone down more often.
Stress is a big part of working in journalism, so what have you found are the best ways to manage your stress levels?
I wish that I practiced more than I preached. I love yoga. I really enjoy meditating. Going for a run, doing zumba, dancing … so I would say as much as I can, I try to fit those in, but it has not been as often as I would like. I am trying to get to a better balance. Maybe after the election.
(Editor’s note: Arizona Capitol Times is owned by BridgeTower Media, a subsidiary of Gatehouse Media.)